Basic literacy and numeracy are insufficient skills for the 21st century


There is a significant difference between basic literacy and numeracy and the English communication and maths skills required in the workplace. Employees need to be functionally literate and numerate. A functionally literate person is able to engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective performance of their group and community. They are also able to deploy their English literacy and basic maths skills to continue using reading, writing and calculation for their own and community’s development.

Quality adult basic education and training or “ABET” from a leading accredited training provider is helping low skilled employees become functionally literate. Low skilled employees who have completed the company’s adult literacy training and adult numeracy training are productive and efficient in the workplace. This is because they have mastered English literacy and numeracy skills. The outcome of an investment into the company’s adult basic education and training or “ABET” is noticeable almost immediately after low skilled employees have completed all levels of English literacy and numeracy training. This includes adult basic education and training or “ABET” Level 1 through to 4.

Many employers have realised that reading, writing and basic numbers skills are not enough to qualify a person as literate and numerate. This is especially the case in a world that is changing at a phenomenal rate due to an array of factors, such as the increased uptake of technology in the production of goods and provision of services. At the same time, societies are evolving and becoming increasingly reliant on specialised skills other than just basic literacy and numeracy. In the 21st century, literate employees possess a wide range of abilities and competencies. This includes many different types of literacies that are also dynamic and malleable.



South Africa ranks last in the 50 countries that participate in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study or “PIRLS”. PIRLS assesses school learners’ reading comprehension capabilities. This provides an indication of the level of quality of these countries’ schooling system.

According to PIRLS, 78% of South African Grade 4 learners cannot read with understanding in any of the many official languages, including English, the formal language of business and learning. Worryingly, the majority of children who remain functionally illiterate at the age of nine will never acquire the ability to comprehend what they read. This is one of the reasons why South Africa has such a high school drop-out rate.

It also means that there is a generation of South Africans who will join the workforce without the skills needed by companies to ensure productivity and efficiency. This will also have far-reach implications on an economy that is already struggling to compete at a global level because of its over reliance on low skilled employees. There is also a very strong possibility that they will pass their functional illiteracy onto their children. This cycle of functional illiteracy will, therefore, continue, as each year goes by, further compounding the dire situation. In extenuating circumstances, many of these people who do not have English literacy and maths skills, will not be able to participate in this modern economy.

They will, therefore, join the many South Africans who are unemployed. Evidence has shown that most people who are not functionally literate have a very bleak future. Studies undertaken in the United States, for example, have revealed a strong correlation between illiterate third-grade boys and future incarceration statistics. South African boys have fallen behind in their literacy studies to such an extent that they are now a full year of learning behind girls of the same age. Notably, this is the second largest gender inequality gap in the world. It is clear that adult basic education and training or “ABET” will become increasingly important over time to help solve this challenge.


Using basic maths and literacy skills to succeed in daily life inside and outside the world of work

Numerical literacy is an ability to use basic maths skills in everyday life. These basic numbers skills are also used to solve problems or manage finances. Numerical literacy, therefore, also complements financial literacy. People who have numeracy skills understand charts, diagrams and data. They are also able to solve problems, check answers, explain solutions and use logic. Numeracy is, therefore, a critical skill that all workers, including low skilled employees, need to function at optimal levels in the workplace.

Financial literacy is the ability to understand and effectively use various financial skills, including personal financial management, budgeting and investing. It is a foundational relationship with money and, like the other types of literacy, is a lifelong journey. Digital literacy includes a wide range of proficiencies that are needed to succeed in a world where modern mediums are rapidly replacing printed types. People with these literacy skills are able to efficiently access information online and engage with others using many different digital platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.

In modern society and workplaces, people deploy these literacy skills to critically use technology and to navigate various online forums and devices. Moreover, digital literacy enables people to understand how technology works and how to creatively and competently manipulate technology to solve problems. Digital literacy also complements media literacy.

Basic Maths


Basic numbers skills, an important component of literacy, are used in a variety of ways. They are as follows:

  • For budgeting and financial purposes: Also referred to as money maths, this skill involves financial transactions, such as handling cash, preparing bills or making payments. It is also an essential skill in some workplaces where employees work with money.
  • For scheduling, budgeting and accounting: People use these basic maths skills to complete tasks that involve managing time and money as resources. They also use their basic numbers skills to plan and monitor the use of these resources. This is in addition to assessing the best value or reducing waste.
  • Measurement and calculation: These basic maths skills are used to measure and describe the physical world. Many low skilled employees use these basic numbers skills almost on a daily basis – whether on a worksite, factory floor, or in the operator’s cab. They are firmly entrenched in their duties and they have refined and honed them over time in the workplace.
  • Data analysis: This is yet another example of how numbers skills are deployed in the workplace and in society at large. People rely on this basic maths skill to analyse numerical data.
  • Numerical estimation: This skill enables people to perform tasks that involve the estimation that results in numbers. Again, this is an example of how basic numbers skills are deployed by staff, including low skilled employees, in the workplace.


Basic numeracy skills, essential components of literacy, are deployed in the workplace in many different ways. However, employees do not always realise that they are using basic maths skills when performing their jobs. This is because these proficiencies differ significantly from the basic maths skills that are taught at school. These are the ways in which basic numbers skills are deployed at work:

  • Data analysis: Employees use their basic numeracy skills for data analysis. In many workplaces, computers track and report in every conceivable work setting. This data needs to be evaluated critically and checked for accuracy.
  • Measuring: Employees use their basic maths skills to measure. Tasks at hand involve rudimentary through to the sophisticated and this involves using a wide range of measuring tools.

To ensure accuracy. Mistakes are made when employees do not have sound basic maths skills. These can delay production and, in extenuating circumstances, even cause accidents in the workplace. Employees also use their basic numbers skills to arrive at the correct answer and scrutinise it for efficiency. Modern workplaces are under extreme pressure to produce more product and services with increasing attention to quality. A sound grasp of maths by all staff, including low skilled employees, is, therefore, essential in today’s work environment.


Literacy and numeracy for fully functioning society

Media literacy is just as important in this day and ageas it enables people to access, analyse, evaluate, create and act using all forms of communication. An abundance of information is now readily available at the click of a key. However, at the same time, there has also been a proliferation of fake news. Now more than ever people need to be able to differentiate between fact and fiction. In many instances, fake news is propaganda that is intentionally designed to mislead the reader and mobilise for a common cause. In extenuating circumstances, it can cause dissention and revolt as was witnessed in 2021 when many people were prepared to loot and vandaliseproperty in the country via a leading social platform. In other instances, it merely serves as “clickbait”. This is fake news that was written purely to entice readers so that the author can be renumerated according to the number of “clicks” the article receives.Authors of this misinformation often entice readers by using sensationalist headlines that are factually incorrect or do not accurately represent the story.This misinformation is easily spread via different social media platforms. Bear in mind that there is a tendency for people to share a story even though they have not read it for meaning.

Health literacy enables people to understand healthcare systems, including medications. People with this literacy skill can communicate efficiently with doctors and specialists and know when and how to seek medical help when they need it. People who do not have good health literacy skills are at risk of taking incorrect medications and misinterpreting instructions from their doctors, among others. They may also miss their medical appointments and misunderstand the medical advice that they receive.

Cultural literacy is an ability to understand all of the indirect nuances that are associated with living or working in a particular society. This ability involves understanding the language, such as English, methods; assumptions; and unstated ideas that consist of the way to behave and communicate. This literacy is specific to each culture and even those that develop in the workplace.Most people are only literate in their own culture. Cultural literacy is extremely important especially in a diverse country, such as South Africa. Sound cultural literacy skills help to avoid misunderstandings and to communicate efficiently with other people and ethnicities. It also makes people more empathetic and aware of others.

Physical literacy involves the development and repeated use of fine motor skills, balance, confident movement and the pleasure of being able to move proficiently. It works in tandem with emotional literacy. This is an ability to identify, validate and express feeling, in addition to recognising and responding to the emotions of others.



The proliferation of fake news reflects the true extent of information illiteracy in the world. Information literacy is a capability that involves finding, evaluating, organising, using and communicating information in its various formats in situations that require decision making, problem solving, or the acquisition of knowledge. The rise of fake news is as a result of the growing distrust of information disseminated by traditional media outlets. This is as result of an increase in factually incorrect and bias reporting.

More people are, therefore, turning to non-traditional sources of data. It is not an easy task trying to regulate these channels. Firstly, authorities fear infringing upon citizens’ right to free speech. This is a very sensitive matter and has been thoroughly debated for many years by policymakers, academics and the “tech” giants that own these platforms. Meanwhile, it is difficult to locate the whereabouts of peddlers of fake news because they usually work remotely unlike traditional media outlets that have fixed addresses. This makes it easier to monitor and act against slander, defamation or libel.


Deploying skills to shape the course of life inside and outside the world of work

People who are literate and numerate are, thus, able to deploy their skills to shape the course of their own life inside and outside the world of work. For example, evidence has shown that literacy and numeracy help to reduce child mortality, curb population growth, achieve gender equality and ensure sustainable development, peace and democracy. Literacy is, therefore, more than just an ability to read and write in languages, such as English. Literacy involves a set of competences that is needed to understand and use the dominant symbol systems of a culture, namely alphabets, numbers and visual icons. Influencing how effective people are able to engage in economic and social life, or their community, literacy and numeracy’s reach is also extensive and complicated. Literate people are able to develop proficiency and fluency with technological tools and equipment. They are also able to use their literacy and numeracy skills to develop intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others to help find workable solutions to challenges.

This includes in the workplace. Low skilled employees who do not have basic numbers skills and are not fluent in English, for instance, will struggle to work in team environments to problem-solve and use their own initiative. By using their literacy skills to collaborate with others, people are also able to strengthen independent thought. Moreover, literacy and numeracy skills are used to design and share information for global communities to meet for a variety of purposes. Literacy and basic numbers skills also enable people to manage, analyse and synthesise multiple streams of simultaneous information. People with literacy and numeracy skills are also able to create, critique and evaluate multimedia texts, while also being able to honour the ethical responsibilities that are required by these complicated environments.


Distinguishing between basic and functional literacy and maths

It is, therefore, important to distinguish between basic and functional literacy. Low skilled employees who have completed quality adult basic education and training or “ABET” from an accredited training provider are functionally literate and numerate. Notably, many employees in possession of a National Senior Certificate have had to complete adult basic education and training or “ABET”. This is because of the way in which they were taught literacy and numeracy at school. While learners who complete their schooling are literate and have basic numbers skills, they are not necessarily functionally literate.

Basic literacy involves learning to read and write in a language, such as English. This is in addition to an ability to perform basic maths. People also use their basic literacy and numeracy skills to learn and develop these proficiencies so that they can deploy them effectively to meet simple needs.

Functional literacy; however, is a broader concept of literacy. Employees who have completed adult basic education and training or “ABET” have an ability to understand and employ printed and digital information in daily activities at work, home and their communities. This is to achieve their goals and develop their knowledge and full potential. Importantly, functionally literate people use their literacy and numeracy skills to analyse; understand general ideas or terms; use symbols in complex ways; apply theories; and perform other necessary life skills.

This means that purely illiterate people cannot read or write in any capacity. Conversely, functionally illiterate people can read and possibly write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary. However, they cannot read or write well enough to cope with the everyday requirements of life in their own society.

A person who does not have sufficient knowledge of birth control and HIV/AIDS prevention, but has achieved a level of education, for example, can be described as functionally illiterate in the field of the reproductive health system. Meanwhile, a language expert who is studied in the field and who cannot operate a computer can be described as a digital illiterate.


Adult literacy training and adult numeracy training for a professional workforce

Triple E Training, a leading accredited training provider’s, adult literacy training and adult numeracy training are equipping low skilled employees with the skills that they need to function at optimal levels in the workplace.

The accredited training provider’s placement assessments will be able to help you determine whether your employees are functionally literate and numerate and at what level they need to commence their adult literacy training and adult numeracy training. Bear in mind that there are four levels of adult basic education and training or “ABET”, each of which is designed to ensure that your employees are able to efficiently develop their English literacy and numeracy skills. By the time your unskilled employees have completed all four levels of adult basic education and training or “ABET”, they will be functionally literate. If they are not placed at the correct adult basic education and training or “ABET” level, they will either not cope with the adult literacy training and adult numeracy training and not finish the course or regress.

This leading accredited training provider has refined its adult literacy training and adult numeracy training over more than 30 years. In doing so, the accredited training provider has been able to keep pace with the adult literacy training and adult numeracy training demands of industry. Moreover, the accredited training provider leverages a national footprint that also covers outlying rural areas so that it can bring its unique adult literacy training and adult numeracy training directly to you. The company is also flexible to accommodate your tight production schedules. Learn more about this accredited training provider and its quality adult numeracy training and adult literacy training programmes.

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